Some Thoughts on Sanctification and Preaching

Before I start, I apologise for the lengthy quotes in this post, but I think it is necessary to make a point.

One writer writes that

The normal Christian life is one of spiritual growth toward greater and greater likeness to Jesus Christ.

Sounds good. This is the concern of sanctification: likeness to Christ. This writer goes on to say

God does influence our minds directly, but his primary method of bringing about growth is through what are commonly called the “means of grace,” or conduits of divine energy. In these means we are not passive but must participate actively. Even though God indeed works in us both the willing and the doing of His good pleasure, we are to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12-13)

Prayer. Through prayer our companionship with God reaches its highest intensity. Not only do we grow more like him through this companionship, but we find that prayer is the great means of victory at the moment of temptation.

Scripture. The Bible is God’s means of revealing his character and thus his will for our thoughts and actions. Therefore, the more we know his word, the higher the potential we have for conforming to his will. It is the milk and bread and meat of the soul. Furthermore, Jesus demonstrated in His hour of temptation that Scripture I is a great weapon in spiritual warfare. As we study it diligently to understand it and as we meditate on it constantly to apply it to life, we will be prepared to use it to overcome temptation.

Church. The congregation of God’s family is indispenpsible for spiritual growth. United worship and observance of the ordinances, teaching fellowship, discipline, service and witness within the responsible structure of the church are God’s ordained means for the growth of each member.

Suffering. Suffering may be God’s great shortcut to spiritual growth. Our response to suffering determines its benefit to us, of course for the same adversity may be destructive or life building. The response of faith, that is, confidence that God has permitted the trial for His glory and our own good, transforms a potentially evil circumstance into a means of making us more like the Suffering Servant Himself.

These four “Tools of the Spirit” are indispensable to Christian growth.

All sounds like useful, practical stuff.

Now, here’s another quote, from a different author. What do you make of this?

While we are constantly dependent on the supernatural agency of the Holy Spirit, we must also take account of the fact that sanctification is a process that draws within its scope the conscious life of the believer. The sanctified are not passive or quiescent in this process. Nothing shows this more clearly than the exhortation of the apostle: “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12, 13). The salvation refered to here is not the salvation already in possession but the Eschatological salvation. And not text sets forth more succinctly and clearly the relation of God’s working to our working. God’s working in us is not suspended because we work, nor our working suspended because God works. Neither is the relation strictly one of co-operation as if God did his part and we did ours so that the conjunction or coordination of both produced the required result. God works in us and we also work. But the relation is that because God works we work. All working out of salvation on our part is the effect of God’s working in us, not the willing to the exclusion of the doing and not the doing to the exclusion of the willing, but both the willing and the doing. And this working of God is directed to the end of enabling us to will and to do that which is well pleasing to him. We have here not only the explanation of all acceptable activity on our part but we have also the incentive to our willing and working. What the apostle is urging is the necessity of working out our own salvation, and the encouragement he supplies is the assurance that it is God himself who works in us. The more persistently active we are in working, the more persuaded we may be that all the energizing grace and power is of God.

The writer goes on to say

Sanctification involves the concentration of thought, of interest, of heart, mind, will and purpose upon the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus and the engagement of our whole being with those means which God has instituted for the attainment of that destination. Sanctification is the sanctification of persons, and persons are not machines; it is the sanctification of persons renewed after the image of God in knowledge, righteousness and holiness. The prospect it offers is to know even as we are known and to be holy even as God is holy. Everyone who has this hope in God purifies himself even as he is pure (1 John 3:3).

On first reading the two authors may seem to be saying the same thing about sanctification. The objective is the same (likeness to Christ). The key verse seems to be the same (Phil. 2:12,13). However there is an important difference. Note how the first writer quickly zooms in on certain activities as crucial to the process of sanctification. They are “Tools of the Holy Spirit”, “conduits of divine energy”. This is in sharp contrast to the second writer who emphasizes that the key activity is that of God in the believer, working with the whole of his being. It is not that the activities listed by the first writer are excluded by the second: he mentions the “means which God has instituted”. But they do not take centre stage.

It is an observation of some that the modern preoccupation with application of Scripture leads us Christians to want to tear off strips of the sanctification process into bite-sized, manageable chunks that we can do. The view underlying this approach is that a person’s life is dividable into chunks, some sanctified, others not. My task is a Christian is to “take the territory” of my life in little packages and thereby grow in sanctification. Preaching is therefore imperative driven, and my response one of doing doable tasks.

However, what is clear from the second writer is that the whole man needs to be renewed, that he cannot be divided into chunks and that there is no part that is not in need of sanctification. Therefore, in myself I am simply not able to “take territory”. Helpless as I find myself, I must turn to God in faith for the help I need. A preacher who recognizes this has a radically different approach to preaching. His method is to present the indicatives of the faith, in order that the faith of the believer is drawn out. The Christian therefore responds in faith, recognizing that he is utterly helpless, and knowing that his whole self is in need. There is no tendency to smugness here.

Of course, faith results in action. It wouldn’t be faith otherwise, would it?

(BTW The first quote is from J. R. McQuilkin in Five Views on Sanctification (Zondevan) pp. 178, 180, 181. The second is from John Murray Redemption: Accomplished and Applied (Banner of Truth) pp. 148-150. )

Some Thoughts on Sanctification and Preaching

3 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on Sanctification and Preaching

  1. Stephen says:

    Prompted by study for it, but not ‘it’! Application-oriented preaching is a bit of an issue for me. Get it wrong (i.e. get the theology wrong) and there are big pastoral issues to sort out further down the line.

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